The other week I walked up London's Farringdon Street, hoping to find and photograph a series of tile murals made by Dorothy Annan for the Central Telegraph Office, a building housing a large telephone exchange that was built in about 1960. When I got there I found nine boarded-up spaces along the ground floor of the building: the murals had gone and the building, empty, dusty, and forlorn, looked ripe for demolition. I soon discovered that the tile panels, thanks no doubt to the recent campaigning on behalf of such architectural art by the Twentieth Century Society, had been saved. They have been installed on one of the High Walks in the Barbican complex and I quickly found them, not far from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, which was emitting seductive high-pitched flute and violin sounds as I settled down to have a good look.
Annan's tile panels have names like Cross Connection Frame and Lines Over the Countryside. They make evocative compositions out of arrangements of aerials, cable buoys, switches, wires, and bits of circuit diagrams, all of which Annan researched carefully before turning them into semi-abstract compositions which – as the accompanying caption remarks – are part Ben Nicholson, part Joan Miró. Looking at the panels (the two most clearly visible in the photograph at the top of this post are Radio Communication and Television and Cables and Communications in Buildings) it would be easy to make remarks about the optimism of the 1960s and the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson's famous enthusiasm for 'the white heat of technology'. But in the restrained palette and artful rhythms of these panels (the Ben Nicholson aspect of them, as it were), there is something less insistent, less frenetic. Their lovely handmade textures are beautifully crafted, too. There is tension in the spiralling wires and chunky aerials in these panels, it's true. But there is also landscape in them, hints in the colour and texture of the tiles of grass and sea and sky; cables that flow like rivers or rise and dip like hills and valleys. I think they're turned on to nature as well as to technology. And for that reason they seem to me to sit rather well in the Barbican, where water and planting complement the chunky hammered concrete, where your feet are always on tiles, and where intriguing sonic signals emerge from student musicians in their practice rooms to captivate the ear.
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Thanks to one of my readers for pointing out that the blog Spitalfields Life has also covered these panels. I was pleased to see that the Gentle Author, proprietor of the Spitalfields Life blog, also appreciates the combination of technology and organic forms that's evident in these works. The Gentle Author illustrates all the panels here.